Cultural Riches Along Po RIver

It might not be the prettiest waterway, but the cities along Italy's famed river are magnificent

By: Mary Ann Hemphill

VENICE, Italy Italy’s Po River cuts through an intellectually fertile plain in northern Italy that brought forth Europe’s first university, superb Renaissance artists and the world’s first violins. Along the way, there are Roman ruins, towns in which Shakespeare set his plays and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“Yet nobody knows about the Po River,” declares travel agent Ann Mulvey, president of Hemispheres Inc. in Scottsdale, Ariz.

This year marks the fourth season on the Po for Peter Deilmann Cruises’ five-star, 96-passenger Casanova. From March 20 to Nov. 13, the Casanova will make seven-night round-trips from Venice.

Mulvey, who has sailed on the Casanova twice, once chartering the vessel, describes the Po as “probably the least scenic river in Europe. But you can see such history and magnificence in these cities.”

Ron Santangelo, Deilmann’s president in North America, describes the route: “There is nothing here like the castles on the Rhine, the Wachau Valley on the Danube or the bridges of Budapest. On the Rhine and the Danube people go for the river scenery. The Po is the opposite. Those passengers travel for the cultural experience.”

Excursions from the Casanova visit Cremona, Verona, Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, Parma and, on some cruises, Padua. The cities visited are anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour from the port.

Mulvey considers the highlight of the cruise to be Cremona, where Antonio Stradivari made more than 1,200 instruments. “It’s a small town, but you get to hear a Stradivarius played by a master violinist.”

Even though scholars declare that Romeo and Juliet had no authentic counterparts, visitors fill the small, shaded courtyard in Verona to envision Shakespeare’s scene.

More authentic is Verona’s first century AD Roman amphitheater, where up to 16,000 people now enjoy the spectacular summer opera productions, an option on certain Casanova sailings.

Powerful dynasties left rich artistic legacies in northern Italy. The Gonzagas’ 500-room Palazzo Ducale in Mantua features some of the most beautiful works of 15th century Italian art, highlighted by the Camera degli Sposi’s frescoes by Andrea Mantegna, the leading Renaissance artist of northern Italy.

For more than three centuries, the Este family ruled Ferrara, a UNESCO World Heritage site with intriguing vaulted medieval streets. In their Castello Estense, grand public rooms are decorated with depictions of pagan athletic scenes and of the hours of the day.

The half-day excursion to Bologna allows only a sampling of the city. Highlights are the city’s remarkable visual harmony and visits to Europe’s oldest university’s original anatomical auditorium and to St. Petronio, one of Christendom’s largest churches.

In Padua, passengers spend the morning strolling from Prato della Valle, Europe’s third-largest square, to the Basilica of Sant’Antonio, the burial spot of St. Anthony, then through the historic center to the university and to the busy market at Piazza Erbe. In the afternoon, they can tour through a national park in the Po Delta or wander through picturesque Chioggia, a fishing village across the lagoon from Venice.

Parma is an addition to all the 2004 itineraries. Highlights include the Duomo, one of the 13th century’s best example of Italian Romanesque architecture and the town’s many appealing food shops.

The trip concludes with a full day in Venice, a stay that can be extended with two-night pre- or post-cruise packages.

Shore excursions are not included in the cruise fare because, Santangelo said, the line’s research has shown that half of the passengers don’t want to take the organized excursions.

The cost for half-day excursions ranges from about $50 to $85; full-day trips start at $114, according to exchange rates in mid-February.

Passengers preferring independent sightseeing can take the excursion buses on a transportation-only basis for 10 euros (about $12.70) an excellent idea.

The Casanova carries a mix of European and American passengers in a refined, Old World style, with an abundance of gleaming wood paneling, small crystal wall lamps, original artworks and elegant coral, gold and aqua fabrics. Maintenance is absolutely impeccable, and with a ratio of one crew member per 2.5 passengers, service is excellent.

The Casanova’s usual passenger mix is 40 percent American and 60 percent European, predominately German.

The menus, ship’s papers and announcements are in both German and English. Shore excursions are handled separately for English speakers and German speakers.

Santangelo feels that this mix attracts a more sophisticated passenger than do the boats catering exclusively to American passengers. Deilmann passengers, mostly in their 60s, are experienced travelers who have probably been to Europe several times.

Cabins are on two decks and have either a queen bed or twins, one of them a sofa by day. Standard cabins are 140 square feet; junior suites are 160 square feet.

Upper cabins have French doors opening to the outside; there’s no balcony, but cruisers get floor-to-ceiling views and fresh breezes.

The pleasing cabin decor is a mix of gold, soft burgundy and honey-toned wood. Amenities include satellite television, video programs, five channels of music, a safe, a hair dryer and, upon request, robes.

With course-by-course presentation, the leisurely dinners are as elegant as the ship. Dishes such as salmon with saffron sauce and veal slices with Parma ham on Marsala sauce are light and portions small so even with several courses, one does not leave the table feeling overly stuffed.

Breakfast and lunch are a mix of buffet and menu service. All dining is at a single seating with assigned tables, and there is no smoking in the dining room. Unusual for a riverboat, room service breakfast is available.

The entertainment schedule is modest. There’s a piano player before and after dinner, with local entertainers brought onboard twice.

Part of the expansive sun deck area is covered. The reception desk is open 24 hours and a doctor is onboard. The ship also has a small shop and a beauty salon.

As selling points, Santangelo cites the allure of Venice, the convenience of seeing these culturally rich cities and the value for the travel dollar, even in today’s climate.

The Casanova’s cruise rates are being held at their 2003 levels. The line does not discount. “We give our best numbers up front and that’s our price,” Santangelo said.

Mulvey targets repeat river cruisers and people who love Italy.

“Our clients absolutely loved the cruise because of the wonderful sights accessible from the Po River,” she said. “And, to me, Peter Deilmann is the best river cruise company anywhere, with such a high quality of food and service.”


Company: Peter Deilmann Cruises
Length: 338 feet
Passenger Capacity: 96
Year Built: 2001
Plugging In: Bathroom outlets can only be used for electric razors. The use of other electrical equipment, such as curling irons and computers, requires electric converters and two-prong adapters. In a twin cabin, the outlets are above one bed and by the vanity. There is no Internet service, but urgent messages may be sent to and from the hotel director’s account.
Hits: Cuisine, impeccable maintenance, excellent shore excursion staff
Misses: Not enough time in some ports.
Itinerary: Seven-night round-trip cruises out of Venice, visiting Cremona, Mantua, Verona, Ferrara, Bologna, Parma and, on some cruises, Padua.
Weatherwise April, May, September and October are the best months.
Cost: Brochure cruise-only fares begin at $1,895 for the main season; $1,780 for the intermediate season; $1,555 for the value season. Other than these published seasonally priced fares, the line does not discount.
Shore excursions may be purchased separately onboard or in an optional, money-saving, $298 package that must be purchased in advance. When sold on its own, the shore excursion package is not commissionable. However, it is included in the various cruise-tour packages, which are fully commissionable.